New Longshoremen's local could lead to labor conflict

It will accept less pay to load, unload steel

June 11, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

After years of relative solidarity among Baltimore's Longshoremen, a group of dockworkers trying to draw new business to the port is threatening to spark a labor war on the city's waterfront.

They have formed a new unit, or local, of the national Longshoremen's union and promised to work for less money.

The group wants primarily to load and unload steel, a cargo once plentiful in the city but now shipped mostly through competing ports with cheaper labor.

Its leader will be the former head of a current dockworkers' local who was ousted after asking his workers to take pay cuts to bring the steel back.

The Longshoremen who handle cargo today consider the new group a violation of their territory -- and they're promising to do everything they can to stop it.

"We'll take any steps necessary to keep this from happening," said Doug Wagner, president of the dockworkers group. "We're going to make sure this thing goes nowhere."

The International Longshoremen's Association, a union that represents port workers throughout the country, has granted a charter for a new unit in Baltimore -- Local 2066. Its members are authorized to load and unload steel, bulk cargo such as liquid or ore, and "break bulk" cargo -- things shipped on pallets or in bags.

The group is expected to hold an organizational meeting as early as next week, then begin negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with Baltimore's Steamship Trade Association, which represents employers in the port. Its members could come from within Baltimore's other ILA locals or be trained fresh.

The group's organizers say they are only pursuing business that another Longshoremen's local didn't want. Local 333, Baltimore's largest Longshoremen's group, rejected a contract with the trade association for loading and unloading steel last October that asked members to work more flexible hours and agree to require fewer workers per shift.

But the leaders of Local 333 say any work loading steel is still their work -- that they rejected the October contract because it also contained concessions for working with cargo shipped in steel containers. They vowed yesterday to petition the national ILA to have the new charter withdrawn, and do "whatever it takes" to make sure Local 2066 never springs to life.

"If this turns into a fight, it could really be an ugly one," said an executive with one of Baltimore's stevedoring firms, companies that employ Longshoremen. "You can't hate anyone for wanting to attract more work, but you can't blame the other guys for getting mad."

Most of the port of Baltimore's steel business has gone in recent years to Philadelphia, where Longshoremen make the same hourly wage -- $20 -- but don't demand as much overtime and allow fewer workers on each job.

The new local's president, William Schonowski, was voted out as president of Local 333 two years ago after asking his membership to cut wages and staff levels to bring back the Alabama-based company Cooper/T. Smith -- once the city's primary stevedore for steel.

Schonowski could not be reached for comment, and none of the new local's other organizers would say whether specific cargo contracts are under consideration. But an executive with Cooper/T. Smith said the company has Baltimore under consideration.

"We've been approached, and we've had some discussions," said Patrick Hall, a Cooper/T. Smith senior vice president. "Nothing's been signed." Hall would not say who from Baltimore approached the company.

Competition among labor groups in the port has been tight for decades, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s when the various Longshoremen's locals had several thousand members. But as the unions have withered along with work in the port -- Local 333 had more than 3,000 members in the 1970s and has about 680 members today -- the locals have largely worked together to keep business.

When shipping lines Maersk Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc. eyed the port for a giant new terminal earlier this year, the Longshoremen agreed to every concession the lines wanted -- including flexible hours, fewer workers and pay cuts.

But traditionally, each local has performed a separate function. One does paperwork, one loads cargo, one performs maintenance, for instance. They don't take away one another's work. Local 2066 -- the sixth ILA local in Baltimore -- is the first one authorized to do the same kind of work as another local.

Opponents plan to contest that point with national union leaders, and local union officials suggest that a fight could ensue.

"This new charter doesn't dilute 333's charter, the way I see it," said Richard P. Hughes, a leader of ILA's "checkers," who handle paperwork and clerical duties. "It's strictly to attract new business."

But Hughes, one of 10 local Longshoremen who petitioned for the new local, did concede: "Other people might see it differently."

Some union members said privately that Hughes' involvement suggests the new local might be a tactic to get Local 333 to negotiate a new contract. The Longshoremen in Hughes' local get work whenever cargo comes to the port.

But Hughes and others say the movement is for real -- that the Longshoremen in Baltimore chased away work by charging too much, and that Local 2066 just wants to get it back.

And employers in the port seem happy with the development.

"We're trying to stop the bleeding from all those lost opportunities," said Maurice Byan, head of the Steamship Trade Association. "We're viewing this new local as a way of gaining back some business."

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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